Robert Downey Jr keeps it in the family by setting up production house with producer wife

Actor Robert Downey Jr on how there are limits to his power on the set with producer wife Susan (both above). -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Actor Robert Downey Jr on how there are limits to his power on the set with producer wife Susan (both above). -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Working with producer-wife Susan is a picnic, says Robert Downey Jr

Actor Robert Downey Jr wants to point out a little-known fact - Tony Stark did not really become the Tony Stark that people now know and remember until late in the first Iron Man movie in 2008.

"In the first movie, he talked to robots, didn't understand much about art - even when he had a lot of it - and he was a conflicted guy.

"If you ask me, Tony Stark was Hamlet with computer graphics around him," he says, invoking the name of the Shakespeare work with Western theatre's first and most recognisable tortured soul.

But if there is a Downey trait that carries over into the characters he plays, it would be the one that the actor's love interest Samantha (Vera Farmiga) in the new movie The Judge describes mockingly as "that hyper-verbal vomit thing".

Art tends to follow life, says the 49-year-old actor, and screenwriters write for Downey the person as much as they write for his characters. Before long, Stark's character became the type of male that the actor is most closely identified with - smart, fast-talking, supremely self-confident - the same qualities possessed by the title character of his other film franchise, Sherlock Holmes.

"After a while, it became this selffulfilling thing, like a snake eating its own tail. So Tony became really snarky," he says to a panel of journalists at the opening of the drama The Judge in Los Angeles earlier this month. The movie, starring Downey, Robert Duvall, Farmiga and Billy Bob Thornton, opens in Singapore tomorrow.

In the film, Downey plays Hank Palmer, a slick Chicago lawyer and estranged son of Joseph (Duvall), a judge in small-town Indiana who feels his son has sold his soul to the highest bidder. The upright and inflexible judge gets caught in a crime and father and son must come together to mount a defence in court.

The Judge's US$50-million (S$63.5-million) budget is a fraction of the US$200 million it took to make Iron Man 3 (2013), but this time, the stakes are personal. It is the first project for Team Downey, the production company he founded with producer wife Susan.

"There's pressure any time someone gives you a bunch of money and says, 'Please don't waste this'. But I also feel it's the most natural, organic thing we've ever done," he says.

He is taken aback by how unwieldy major Hollywood projects have become. On one project, he witnessed 28 producers in one room, each trying to establish dominance. On The Judge, working with just his wife was "a picnic, instead of a food fight".

In his case, being married to the producer did not automatically grant him privileges. He launches into a mini sketch about the limits of his power.

"She knows I like to come in and go, 'F*** this scene, let's rewrite it!' She goes, 'You can't do that.'

"I'd say, 'Listen, b***h. Don't tell me how to do my art,'" he adds, feigning the self-righteous tantrum of a stifled artist.

He says the typical reaction from her would be a cool "Are you done?", before going back to doing things her way.

Downey gives frequent and public credit to his wife for her intelligence and level-headedness as well as how she saved him, a veteran of drug rehabilitation, from disappearing down the rabbit hole of Hollywood excess.

He met and romanced the then Susan Levin, a budding producer, when they worked together on the psychological thriller Gothika (2003). They have one son, two-year-old Exton, and are expecting a daughter next month.

Mrs Downey, 40, says The Judge marks the seventh time they have worked together as actor and producer and, in that time, their private and working lives have become "so intertwined, we don't know how it could be any different".

"He trusts me to have his back so he can let himself be exposed as an actor," she adds.

Duvall, 83, like Downey, wants to set the record straight on a common misunderstanding. He has heard it said that The Judge was a "throwback to the old days" of Hollywood, when humancentred dramas were the norm, rather than disposable action flicks.

He points out that dramas are still being made, only now by independent studios rather than the majors, he says. And from countries such as Iran, there comes a constant supply of good films about family relationships, he says.

The Academy Award-winning actor with a more than 50-year career in films, such as The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Tender Mercies (1983), wants to dispel the notion that movies were better made in the past.

Put old Hollywood on a pedestal and you are ignoring the dodgy quality of so many of its works, he says.

"Some of those older movies weren't that great. I think today there are better directors and better actors. The standards are higher now," he says.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

The Judge opens in cinemas here tomorrow.